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New state park fee tolerated by motorists

Deception Pass State Park aide Lauren Hilberdink sells a Discover Pass to a visitor. The Discover Pass is required at state parks and cost $10 a day or $30 a year.   - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Deception Pass State Park aide Lauren Hilberdink sells a Discover Pass to a visitor. The Discover Pass is required at state parks and cost $10 a day or $30 a year.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

In the next two years, Washington State Parks will be weaned from public tax dollars. To make up the funding loss, officials are looking to park visitors to foot the bill.

Visitors to Washington State Parks, including the four located on Whidbey Island and areas managed by the state departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife, had to purchase a Discover Pass starting July 1. The vehicle pass costs users $10 per day or $30 per year. The pass is good at all state parks.

Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for Washington State Parks, said the park system is moving away from using taxes to pay for costs and relying on fees and donations. Washington State Parks is receiving nearly $17 million from the Legislature for the biennium and officials hope to raise an additional $54 million from Discover Pass sales in the next two years.

Visitors could face a $99 fine if they drive into the park without having a pass.

Deception Pass State Park employees noted the park was at capacity over the busy Fourth of July weekend, but there were several instances in which staff had to turn away visitors.

“Considering it was a huge change for our visitors, I thought it went really well,” Deception Pass State Park Ranger Jack Hartt said, adding that  once staff explained the fee to visitors they were generally willing to pay. He didn’t have any attendance numbers immediately available, but he said it looked like it was one of the busiest weekends at Deception Pass.

“I think people understand the reasoning and they are supporting the parks,” Hartt said.

Statewide approximately $1.3 million in Discover Pass fees was collected over the Fourth of July weekend.

Locally, $25,000 in fees was collected at Deception Pass State Park, $6,000 collected at Fort Ebey State Park, and $6,000 collected at Fort Casey State Park over the same period.

On a recent visit to Deception Pass State Park, several of the visitors were resigned to paying for a pass, but expressed hope the cost stays low while providing money to keep the parks they enjoy open.

“We use the parks a few times a year,” said Lynnwood resident Patrick Cox. “I’d be willing to pay for it.” He and his wife and four children drove to Whidbey to enjoy an afternoon at Deception Pass. Ten dollars was OK with Cox, but he warned it would be upsetting if the park fee climbs higher.

Bellingham resident Dan Pursley, a youth pastor escorting 20 teenagers on a summer mission trip, had already expected to pay a reasonable fee to use the park. He paid a similar fee to enter the federally owned Olympic National Park.

He said he’d be willing to buy a pass “as long is it’s not so expensive that you can’t go.”

Washington State Parks has made cutbacks in the wake of recent budget crises in recent years.

In the last biennium, the Legislature provided $43 million to state parks. The number of Washington State Parks employees dropped to 515 from 610.

“Our ranger staff is pretty thin,” Painter said, adding leaders still managed to keep parks open.

A few years ago the state approved a $5 license tab fee that motorists could opt out of paying. The money raised from that fee fell short of projections, Painter said. Parks officials hoped to raise $28 million, but it brought in only $18 million.

The money from the new Discover Pass will be distributed between State Parks, which gets 84 percent of the revenue; Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, which gets 8 percent; and the Washington Department of of Natural Resources, which also gets 8 percent.

“The Discover Pass will help ensure that the beautiful recreation lands of Washington state remain open for all to enjoy,” Peter Goldmark, commissioner of public lands, said in a news release. “For less than the cost to take the family out to the movies, we can keep popular places such as Mount Si, Capital State Forest and Ahtanum State Forest open.”

The pass can be purchased at parks where staff is available, from the nearly 600 outlets that sell recreational fishing and hunting licenses, by telephone at 866-320-9933 or online at www.discoverpass.wa.gov.

When fees are included, a yearly Discover Pass will cost $35, which includes a 10 percent transaction fee and a $2 dealer fee.

Painter said it was best to use the existing system for hunting and fishing licenses because State Parks didn’t want to hire additional staff.

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